Historic Sites in Austria

Historic Sites in Austria

History Hit

24 Nov 2020

There’s a host of top Historic Sites in Austria to visit and among the very best are Schonbrunn Palace, Hofburg Imperial Palace and the Vienna State Opera. Other popular sites include Hohensalzburg Fortress, Salzburg Cathedral and Salzburg Catacombs.

We’ve put together an experts guide to Austrian Cultural Places, Landmarks and Monuments with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Historic Sites in Austria, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.

What are the best Historic Sites in Austria?

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1. Schonbrunn Palace

Schonbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn) in Vienna was in the possession of the Habsburg Dynasty from the sixteenth century to 1918, when it passed into the hands of the Austrian Republic. Originally known as Katterburg, it was renamed as Schonbrunn in approximately 1642.

The land on which Schonbrunn Palace sits was purchased by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II in 1569 and used as a hunting lodge and recreational venue before the buildings were destroyed as part of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.

Reconstruction of Schonbrunn Palace began in 1696 under the orders of Emperor Leopold I and designed by architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in a Baroque style. At this time, Schonbrunn Palace was intended to be a hunting lodge rather than a residence and thus it remained until Emperor Charles VI, who had acquired the palace in 1728, gifted it to his daughter, Maria Theresa.

Maria Theresa transformed Schonbrunn, both in terms of architecture and the palace’s stature. She spearheaded the renovation and extension of Schonbrunn, turning it into a palatial residence designed by architect Nikolaus Pacassi and made it a focal point of Austrian political and social life. Maria Theresa’s death in 1780 marked a further period of neglect of Schonbrunn Palace, which was occupied twice by Napoleon in 1805 and 1809.

Schonbrunn Palace did undergo some renovation during the nineteenth century, including the removal of much of its Rococo facade and the repainting of its exterior to a colour known as “Schonbrunn Yellow”.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Schonbrunn Palace and its magnificent gardens are one of the most popular historic tourist destinations in Vienna and visitors can avail themselves of various themed guided tours or make use of free audio guides.

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2. Hofburg Imperial Palace

Hofburg Imperial Palace, or just “the Hofburg”, is a grand palace in Vienna and was under the ownership of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Dynasty until 1918, when it passed to the Austrian Republic.

Today it is a buzzing network of museums, restaurants and halls as well as the seat of the President of Austria.

Although the oldest, square parts of the building date back to the thirteenth century, Hofburg Imperial Palace became a residence of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from the fifteenth century and the seat of the Emperor of Austria from the early nineteenth century.

The oldest and most well preserved part of the Hofburg is its gothic chapel or ‘Burgkapelle’, where visitors can hear the Vienna boys’ choir sing on Sundays amidst its stunning architecture.

Hofburg Imperial Palace contains a wealth of architectural gems derived from a series of renovations and expansions carried out during the course of the Habsbergs’ ownership, including works by Filiberto Luchese, Lukas von Hildebrandt and Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, the latter of whom also designed parts of Schonbrunn Palace.

Hofburg Palace is now made up of a series of museums, such as the Sisi Museum, housing the imperial silver collection, the Euphesus Museum of neo-baroque architecture, the natural history museum and the collections of military armour.

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3. Vienna State Opera

The Vienna State Opera House dates back to 20 December 1857, when Emperor Franz Josef made his intention to expand Vienna’s public buildings known.

Construction of the Vienna State Opera House formed part of this controversial scheme and its design was awarded to architects August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll, neither of whom lived to see its completion on 25 May 1869. They designed the State Opera House in a renaissance style which is still prominent today, despite the building’s destruction on 12 March 1945 in World War II by American bombing raids.

The State Opera House was rebuilt after the war, including restoring its original façade, and the first performance of Fidelio by Beethoven was held there on 5 November 1955. Today, the State Opera House houses the world famous Vienna Philharmonic.

Guided tours of the building are available and include the entrance foyer, the main staircase, the marble room, Schwind foyer and the Gustav Mahler room as well as a tour of the auditorium, but only at specific times – you can find out more by calling ahead.

The nearby Vienna State Opera Museum displays a series of exhibitions relating to the building and its history since 1955. Of course, another way to tour the Vienna State Opera is to buy a ticket to a performance, but do so far in advance as these are very popular.

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4. Mozart’s Birthplace

Mozart’s Birthplace has been transformed into a museum of the composer's life. Set over three floors, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is also where he lived on the third floor with his sister and parents from his birth on 27 January 1756 until 1773.

The rooms are in their original state and include artefacts such as some of his instruments, documents, keepsakes and portraits. Guided tour and mobile phone text guide are available.

As a guide, the visit usually lasts 1.5 hours. 

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5. The Belvedere Palaces

The two magnificent Baroque Belvedere palaces – Upper and Lower – are the most visited cultural sites in Vienna. They were built in the early years of the 18th century as a summer residence by Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s most distinguished statesmen and military commanders. Napoleon himself considered Eugene to be one of the seven greatest commanders in history. Amongst other treasures, the Upper Belvedere holds the world’s greatest collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt.

Built by world-renowned Baroque architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, Lower (‘Unteres’) Belvedere where Prince Eugene lived was completed in 1716 and Upper (‘Oberes’) Belvedere – so named because it sits on higher ground – in 1724. The two are connected by a spectacular garden designed by pre-eminent Parisian garden designer Dominique Girard, a pupil of the principal gardener to King Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre, designer the park of the Palace of Versailles.

The Lower Belvedere Palace where the prince lived includes the Marble Gallery with plaster medallions of the Greek god Apollo, the Grotesque Hall’s detailed wall paintings and the richly decorated Sale Terrene and Garden Pavilion.

The Upper Belvedere Palace contains one of Austria’s – and perhaps Europe’s – finest art collections. Prince Eugene was a famous patron of the arts and was an avid collector of 16th and 17th century Italian, Dutch and Flemish art. On your tour of the Upper Palace you’ll find art from the Middle Ages as well as the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings including ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Judith’. You will also see works by Monet, Van Gogh, Amerling, Fendi, Rottmayr and Troger as well as grimacing character heads by German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

English-language tours of the palaces and the Orangery are available and if you’re an art lover, you can join some amazing restoration and conservation workshops.

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6. Hohensalzburg Fortress

Hohensalzburg Fortress, also known as Hohensalzburg Castle, in Salzburg, Austria, is an incredibly well preserved citadel and one of the largest remaining medieval fortresses in central Europe.

Hohensalzburg was built in 1077 by Gebhard von Helfenstein, also known as Prince Gebhard I of Helffenstein and Archbishop Gebhard, and was later expanded over the centuries, including by Archbishop Leonhard von Keutschach in the sixteenth century.

It is said that Hohensalzburg Fortress has never been captured by enemies; however attempts to take it have also been sparse and of dubious force. As denoted by its name, which literally translates to “High Salzburg Fortress”, Hohensalzburg Fortress sits high atop Salzburg and is an imposing white stone structure with large battlements and turrets.

Inside Hohensalzburg Fortress is the Fortress Museum displaying, amongst other things, a good collection of ancient weaponry, Roman coins, and historic musical instruments. You can also see several state rooms as well as torture chambers. The views from Hohensalzburg Fortress are spectacular and these alone are worth the trip.

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7. Salzburg Cathedral

Salzburg Cathedral is the centre of this historical Austrian city’s ecclesiastical community. Whilst the city’s first cathedral was built there in 767, Salzburg Cathedral has been built, destroyed, reconstructed and expanded numerous times and has been consecrated three times.

In 1167, Salzburg Cathedral was destroyed when the city was set alight by the Counts of Plain. Despite being reconstructed, it was subject to yet another fire in 1598, which ravaged large parts of it. Much controversy followed, as the archbishop of the time tore down the entire church rather than trying to preserve its remaining parts.

Salzburg Cathedral’s final incarnation took shape in the 17th century, when architect Markus Sittikus was commissioned to design a new cathedral. Sittikus designed Salzburg Cathedral in a Baroque style with a majestic marble façade crowned with green domes and flanked by towers, a style which was new to the region.

The cathedral was consecrated in 1628, having managed to avoid the conflict of the Thirty Years’ War. Since then, Salzburg Cathedral’s dome was destroyed and rebuilt when it was struck by bombing raids in 1944. The new dome and cathedral were then consecrated once again in 1959 and dedicated to Saint Rupert of Salzburg. His statue stands in front of Salzburg Cathedral, together with those of the apostles Peter and Paul and Saint Virgil.

Inside the ornate interior of Salzburg Cathedral, one can find the place where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptized and also where he composed many of his musical pieces.

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8. Salzburg Catacombs

The Salzburg Catacombs are series of mausoleums carved into the face of the Mönchsberg rock by the city’s St. Peter’s Cemetery. St. Peter’s Cemetery (Petersfriedhof) was built in 1627, making it Salzburg’s oldest graveyard.

St Peter’s Cemetery is the resting place of several eminent people including the composer, Michael Haydn, the architect of Salzburg Cathedral, Sanction Solaria and Mozart’s sister, Mannerly. The historic Salzburg Catacombs overlook this beautiful cemetery and are accessible via a stone staircase.

Inside the Salzburg Catacombs, visitors can wander through the altars, deciphering their fascinating inscriptions and taking in the murals.

It is unknown as to when the Salzburg Catacombs were originally constructed, but they are believed to have been built by early Christians.

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9. Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Mauthausen Concentration Camp or ’KZ Mauthausen’ was a vast Nazi concentration camp in northern Austria. First established in 1938, Mauthausen Concentration Camp was built through the slave labour of prisoners from another such camp, Dachau. Over time, it grew to encompass a number of sub-camps, such as Gusen Concentration Camp.

Prisoners at Mauthausen Concentration Camp included those labelled as criminals, but were mainly comprised of anyone opposed to the Nazi regime, especially on a political or ideological basis. At a later stage, large numbers of Jews from concentration camps like Auschwitz were also transported there.

Like in all such Nazi camps, prisoners at Mauthausen were subject to numerous ongoing atrocities, such as starvation, torture, overcrowding and slave labour. Inmates at Mauthausen Concentration Camp were quite literally worked to death in the camp’s quarries and munitions factories, while the Nazis reaped the financial benefits of their work. Those who didn’t perish as a result of hard labour were liable to die of disease, malnourishment or to be killed in gas chambers.

Over 119,000 of the almost 200,000 prisoners at Mauthausen Concentration Camp had died there by the time it was liberated by American forces on 5 May 1945.

Today, Mauthausen Concentration Camp is open to the public, who can see the original camp and the terrible conditions to which prisoners were subjected. There is a visitor centre and many memorials to the different national, ethnic and religious groups who suffered at Mauthausen.

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10. Carnuntum

Carnuntum Archaeological Park in Austria contains both reconstructed and original remains from this once-thriving and strategically vital Roman city.

The site is made up of a number of different attractions spread across a rather large area. Fascinating Roman ruins sit amongst restored and entirely reconstructed buildings, designed to bring visitors back in time to experience what life would have been like here in the Roman era.

Roman influence first took hold at Carnuntum in the early Julio-Claudian period. At the time the Danube was vital to Rome’s defence and the site was chosen as an important defensive sector and home to Rome’s 15th Legion. The Emperor Claudius also recognised the potential of the city, erecting a military camp designed to hold 6000 men while the city became the Carnuntum capital of the province of Upper Pannonia.

From the early second century the 14th legion, one of Rome’s most formidable, was stationed at Carnuntum – a testament to the city’s growing importance. With a permanent military garrison in place, and great potential for trade, a thriving civilian city expanded at Carnuntum and it soon became one of the largest and most important Roman cities in the region.

It was in 308AD, however, at a conference between the four Emperors of the Tetrarchy that Carnuntum would play its part in vital Roman – and world – history. After tough negotiations at Carnuntum, an end to the persecution of Christians and a universal tolerance of religion was proclaimed throughout the Empire.

With the increasing instability of the later-Roman empire, Carnuntum’s position on the border left it vulnerable. The city suffered greatly during the Barbarian Invasions and was gradually abandoned and fell to ruin.

Today visitors to Carnuntum can explore the remains of this Roman city – including the ruins of the military camp, amphitheatre and civilian and religious buildings – while also discovering the many full reconstructions built at the site.

These architectural reconstructions were produced largely with traditional Roman tools and craftsmanship and are said to be among the most accurate representations of Roman life in the fourth century ever produced. Fully functional, they are not simply museum pieces but instead welcome visitors to experience vibrant Roman life and society as it actually was.

Visitors can amass the dignitas and gloria of genuine Roman senators as they walk through the city’s buildings, particularly the Villa Urbana which showcases the luxury afforded to the wealthiest of the residents.

The archaeological site includes an important temple area which predates the Roman conversion to Christianity and celebrates one of the most important of Roman gods, Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Another highlight is the amphitheatre which was the centre of the Roman entertainment and home to the legendary Gladiator fights. The site’s other attractions include the remains of large public baths, an impressive Roman monument known as the Heidentor (Heathens’ Gate), while the museum is also a must see.

It is worth noting that the site is set out across a large area, with significant distance between the various attractions. It is therefore advisable to be prepared for these long walks when visiting.

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